Sisi under fire after Coptic church attack

Published: Dec. 15, 2016

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi faced sharp criticism following Sunday’s (11 Dec.) bomb attack on a Coptic church in Cairo, in which 25 Mass-goers were killed and 49 people were injured.

Islamic State on Tuesday (13 Dec.) claimed responsibility for the attack, which President Sisi the day before had blamed on a man linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. 

Angry Copts protested outside St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, next to the church where the explosion occurred, and some called for the resignation of the president. Some Copts accuse the state of an ongoing failure to protect Egypt’s Christian minority from Islamic extremists.

“The Church asks us to forgive and love all the time. But with such loving behaviour, we will only reap more pain, bloodshed and endless crimes,” a Copt, Mary Hanna, told the news website Al-Monitor. “We want answers about how such an amount of explosives got through to the prayer hall.”

She pointed to a more widespread hostility towards Christians, asking: “Why has the state allowed the proliferation of centres spreading anti-Christian thought in Egypt?”

Fr. Makary Younan of the nearby St. Mark’s Cathedral urged Copts to stop protesting, adding: “It is our religious duty to obey our presidents and sultans.”

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on freedom of religion, said Egypt’s security apparatus had “failed” to end the vulnerability of Copts, whom he said are becoming increasingly angry.

Only victims’ relatives were allowed to attend the private funeral service held at a church in the eastern Cairo suburb of Nasr City on Monday (12 Dec.) and presided over by Coptic Pope Tawadros II.

Speaking at the state funeral which followed, the president claimed that the attack had been carried out by 22-year-old Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Mustafa, whom a top interior ministry official said was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi also said three men and a woman were arrested and two other suspects were on the run.

Witnesses disputed the president’s claim, telling journalists that they had seen a woman, not a man, enter the church, leave a bag and depart shortly before Sunday’s explosion. Sources from the criminal laboratory team, who were in the church carrying out investigations, told the Coptic newspaper Watani that it was too early to reach definite conclusions about details of the explosion.

The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attack. However some Egyptian websites claimed that Christians had been complicit in the bombing in order to attract public sympathy. Bishop Anba Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Church in the UK, told The Christian Post the accusations were “ludicrous and insulting”.

One commentator suggested the attack had been launched in retaliation to foreign-backed military action against Islamist-jihadist groups in Aleppo and Mosul. Christine Chaillot, author of Les Coptes d’Égypte, told the French Catholic daily La Croix: “I think that the source of this violence is actually located around Aleppo and Mosul. In my view, it seems to be a reaction by Islamists and it may be only the beginning of a new series of violence… The Copts were the scapegoats.”

The increase in hostility towards Copts in recent years is widely understood as scapegoating for Egyptians’ discontent with the rule of President Sisi – for whom Copts generally voted – after the 2013 ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.